Character(s): Holmes, Watson
Summary: Holmes works on expanding his botanical knowledge.
Author's Notes: I once woke up in Watson's state when I was perhaps seven. My parents were more sympathetic than Holmes was. Also, the OED cites a 1908 abstract from the American Chemical Society as the first usage for urushiol, in which the term is described as being only a proposed name for that chemical. That probably should set this story around 1908, or perhaps slightly earlier.
Word Count: 969
Light trickled through the curtains, illuminating floating dust motes and stained woodwork. Nothing moved as the morning progressed. The angle of the sunbeam changed, advanced, trickled past the yellowing newspapers and climbed up the walls. For a brief moment the depths of the bullet holes revealed the dull shine of the pellets embedded at the base, and then as the angle changed they subsided once more into shadow. At last the shaft of light reached the prone figure on the settee, lying inert, unconscious. As the warmth oozed over its features it stirred, tried to move, and groaned.
The voice was male, and the groan had the distinctive note characteristic of a young man who, upon waking the morning after a late night, wishes he had not woken, or, failing that, that he had not gone out the night before. A particular creak on the tail of the groan often encodes a willingness on the part of the groaner to be helpful to any higher powers that are attending him: if it would make it easier for them to grant his wishes, the creak confides, he is quite willing never to have been born at all. This man, however, did not have that creak. His misery was so profound that he was in no mood to be helpful to any higher powers. Indeed, if a higher power entered his thoughts in any manner, it was assailed with such a litany of grievances and maledictions that it turned tail instantly and fled.
The man did not open his eyes. He raised a hand to his head, and as his fingers encountered the clammy fabric covering his eyes, he twitched in distress, lowered his hand, and groaned once more. The higher powers continued to maintain their distance, but presently a second voice announced a more earthly presence. It was light, smooth, and cold. A hint of amusement was the only emotion to be detected; sympathy was entirely absent.
“You have only yourself to blame, you know. I did warn you to keep your distance from the stuff. The consequences of your folly are no concern of mine.”
The man lay still for a long moment. He seemed to be weighing the danger of incurring more pain from speech against the burning desire to express his rancour. Finally the needs of the spirit defeated the needs of the body, and he spoke.
“You monster. You look at me, blinded, crippled, and you have the gall to say that this is my fault! Have you even seen your handiwork?”
He gasped in pain as he yanked the cloth from his eyes and struggled to sit upright, turning to face the direction from which the voice had come. In the light of the sunbeam, the extent of his disfigurement was clear. His eyes were swollen shut, surrounded by weeping blisters that had crusted and cracked and crusted once more. His hands were in a similar condition, covered in smaller blisters that immobilized his fingers in a half-crooked state. The voice of his companion took on a tinge of mild interest.
“Indeed. Things have progressed quite markedly from last night. I shall make a note of it after breakfast—there’s no call for that sort of language, Doctor. You are a medical man. When I inform you that I will be working with urushiol, I expect you to know the effects of contact with it. One hardly needs to be an expert in my methods to make that sort of connection.”
“Forgive me if I haven’t read the latest articles from the American Chemical Society! I’d never heard the term before, and I’m afraid I don’t speak Japanese, so I can’t figure it out from etymology. Or did you not see the complete lack of understanding on my face when you told me about this project? Oh—forgive me. You saw, I’m sure, but perhaps you did not observe.”
The interest changed to mild reproach. “Really, now. You don’t need to know the proposed name for a chemical to recognize its provenance. After all that fuss about hysterical women’s syndrome one would think you’d know not to touch—“
“I do not make it a habit to learn the specifics of all the flora from foreign continents. But be that as it may, although I learned long ago not to touch any plant you bring home, I was busy Tuesday night, in case you forgot. I neither saw nor observed you put the beastly thing in my bedroom--my own bedroom. Forget what I knew or didn’t know! My own bedroom!”
“ A plant can hardly survive on my workbench for very long. It needed light, and these windows were the best place to ensure its survival. I should have thought you’d recognize that, after the fuss you made about our fern.”
The fury in the invalid’s voice subsided, to be replaced with bitterness. “I can only hope this thing will die equally fast. It’s a handsome vine, Holmes, and it seemed healthy and brightened the room beautifully. How, then, could I possibly have known to attribute its presence to you? I thought it was from Mrs Hudson, who had finally forgiven us—or me, at least—for the business with the curtains.”
A rueful laugh, and then, “Well, that was my fault, at least. I should have known you still can’t apply my methods accurately. Mrs Hudson needs at least another day to forget an event of that magnitude, and I shouldn’t have expected you to remember that.”
“A backhanded apology, if I ever heard one! Why can’t you just call things by their common names? I assure you, Holmes, I would not have touched any strange plants if you had only told me you were planning to work with something called poison ivy!”